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Towing a Cow Across a River

Towing a Cow Across a River

Hello and good day!

One of the most curious things I've seen working out in the jungle buying and processing cacao in Peru is captured in the picture above.

This river didn't have a bridge over it for the longest time. And for more than 60 years, towns on the two sides of this river traded with each other by carrying stuff back and for via small boats.

One of the items traded frequently is cows. The cows simply got hitched to the boat and pulled across the river.

It is a very interesting sight.

There is now a bridge crossing the the cows have caught a break. In truth, the story of the two towns and how they came to trade with each other is quite compelling.

Our field manager sat down with David Guerrero, a 96 year old cacao farmer, to learn about how the townspeople figured out how to cross the river and why Puerto Ciruelo is called what it is called.

One last quick note, our cacao fermenting and drying facility was in Puerto Ciruelo for about 7 years. Puerto Ciruello was named in 1960.

For many years prior, the town was called Puerto Chinchipe, named after the Chinchipe river, on whose banks the village was founded. The people living there in the early years were dedicated to planting corn and raising cattle.

The entire area was still a big forest at that time and there was plenty of natural grass. It made sense to raise cattle. One of the first families in Puerto Chinchipe was the Guerrero family, whose ancestors are originally from Ecuador.

When the Guerreros arrived and settled, there was another village in the hills across the river from Puerto Chinchipe called La Florida. During a time of drought, the people of La Florida had a hard time taking care of their cattle and raising plants. It got so bad that they barely had enough water to drink.

In desperation, they came down from the hills and made their way to the banks of the Chinchipe river.  The people of La Florida made a decision to bring their families down from the hills as well and form another little village near the beaches of the river, on the other side of the river from the people of Puerto Chinchipe.

Those from La Florida cut down trees to build houses. They dug wells for themselves. And they started raising their cattle near the river. The big goal for the two towns was to figure out how to cross the Chinchipe.

One idea was to tie long branches from a Balsa tree together with a vine. The sticks were 4 -5 meters long and well tied. But that didn’t work well for crossing a river with such a strong current. They could cross, but it was extremely dangerous.

One day, when the river was very full, and the people were bathing in the river in the afternoon, a large tree came floating down the river. Everybody stopped bathing and quickly got some rope so that they could reel in the tree.

It was a Catahuas tree. Catahuas trees had a reputation for being terrible house building trees. The wood is weak and can’t sustain weight, and it is very spiny.

But it floated very well. 

When the villagers investigated the tree more closely, they saw that the roots were still attached. The river had been rushing so strongly that it pulled this tree off the bank by its roots.

Everybody got to thinking that this tree may be excellent for making a little boat.They cut off all the branches and hollowed out the trunk. The work was done with hatchets as there was no electricity at all in the jungle in the 1960s.

The workers got all scraped up by the spines and when they were done, they let the tree dry under the sun. After one month of drying, the villagers tested the wood again by pushing the hollow tree into the river to see if it would sink.

It didn’t sink.

It was surprising to all that this weak tree, which was considered useless on land, was perfect for making boats. And the boats were of a good size because the trees are big, 2 – 3 meters in circumference.

From that point on, they stopped using Balsa rafts to cross the river.

And those little boats were the most important mode of transportation for the people of those towns for more than 60 years, until president Ollanta Humala built a bridge across the Chinchipe in the year 2015.

In the beginning, these boats were used as row boats, the oars were also made from Catahuas wood. This went on for 15 years. Those wanting to cross had to wait until the river was calm and low to go to the other side.

This is how trade between to the two sides of the river was conducted. Boats filled with rice, pasta, olive oil, clothing, and all other goods would go back and forth on Catahuas canoes.

At the end of the 70s, a man from another town started using an outboard motor to cross his local river on a similar boat. This made crossing the river much faster and much less dangerous. It worked well and he started going from town to town offering to install motors in boats.  

Once it became known that Catahuas wood could support the weight of a motor, the price of the Catahuas wood started to rise. People from other parts of the jungle came to Puerto Cireullo and La Florida to buy trees. They made boats from the trunks and oars from the top of the tree.

But there was one problem with that. Almost all of the Catahuas trees had been cut down deep in the jungle and they were too big to transport. Only a few could be found down by the river.

A little industry popped up walking along the river looking for Catahuas trees that had floated ashore. Many trees were found in this way.  One of the most peculiar things you will ever see is cattle traders tying a cow to the side of their canoe and motoring across the Chinchipe river with the cow in tow.

Now, let’s circle back to how Puerto Ciruelo got its name. As mentioned, Puerto Ciruello was originally called Puerto Chinchipe. But there were many other towns with that exact same name.

As the population grew from 4 families to 20 families, one of the original founders of the town, David Guerrero, planted plum trees on his farm. Plum in Spanish is Ciruela.

When the plums were ripe, they turned bright red. From far away, people could see the red fruit on David Guerrero’s farm. People started to ask what the name of that red fruit was.

David told them -- it is a Ciruela!

Visitors always admired how beautiful the red fruit looked when they came to the town, especially in December and January when the fruit was its ripest. In honor of that, the townspeople decided to call their town Puerto Ciruelo. Ciruelo refers to the whole tree, whereas Ciruela refers only to the fruit.

These days Puerto Ciruelo is a warm and growing town. It has a regular cattle market and auction, some tourism, a lot of commerce, especially in rice, coffee, cacao, soy, and so much more.

As of this writing, our friend David Guerrero is 96 years old. 

I hope that you have a truly blessed day!